Sinfonia Preamp and Amp Reviewed

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Now this is unusual: A UK reviewer reviewing a UK-made product which the British can't buy. When I was told that Musical Fidelity had produced a pre-amp and power amp exclusively for the Korean hi-fi community, I was naturally curious. Would it be a familiar product in a new case? Would it cost a fortune? Would the British be missing out on something outstanding?

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The answers to those questions are no, no and yes. The Sinfonia combination is all-new, not just the faceplate. The price is embarrassingly low. And the British will never know what they're missing. Because the Sinfonia products were commissioned personally by the Korean distributor, I am assuming that it has been designed specifically to meet Korean criteria. And Korean tastes turn out to be not unlike those of British audiophiles in many areas.

The power amplifier is a dual-mono design working for much of its 40W/channel output in Pure Class A; this is a classic British recipe. Its power (relative to price) is just what's required for the kind of speakers likely to be hooked up to its multi-way, gold-plated binding posts: medium-sensitivity, dynamic loudspeakers of the stand-mounting variety. The external design is simplicity itself, with just an on-off switch, the input sockets and the binding posts -- nothing superfluous to interfere with either the signal or the operation. Inside, there are two separate toroidal transformers and four pairs of bipolar output devices per channel for genuine dual-mono performance.

The pre-amp is equally purist, its clean front panel containing only the on-off control, volume and source selection for phono, line or tape sources, with switchable moving-coil or moving-magnet input. Every stage has its own regulation. So far, so British. But from here on the two markets separate.

The two Sinfonia units are, simply, too elegant and too attractive to appeal to the masochists in the British hi-fi community. Even though the price is ridiculously low and the finish suitably high, British scepticism would prevent customers in the UK from understanding that good looks and superb build quality don't have to mean a compromise in sonic performance. The beautifully chromed front panels, the smooth operation of the volume control, the delightful tactile experience imparted by the source selector and on-off controls, the thump-free switch-on, the silent's almost too easy, too nice for the hi-fi crazies who think that specialist hi-fi means living dangerously.

I was unfair to the Sinfonia system because I used it with very hungry speakers costing seven times the price of the pre/power combination: Sonus Faber Extremas. These are more likely to be used with massive 200W-plus Class A monoblocks, yet the Sinfonia package was able to drive them to comfortable levels before the limits of their power capability were reached. And even then the sound didn't turn into the nasty, paper-tearing noise associated with clipping. Instead, the bass turned a bit boomy, the treble a touch ragged, and I find these mild upsets to be a far gentler warning from an amplifier than the snapping harshness I expect of small amplifiers to suggest that you back off the levels a bit.

Mated to less power-hungry speakers, such as the BBC LS3/5A which allowed me to keep the volume control between the 10 and 2 o'clock positions, the Sinfonias handled dynamic swings with ease, the bass never exhibiting any loss of control. And, provided that the speakers chosen for use with the Sinfonias are suited to the amplifier's capabilities, what you will hear is a full, rich sound suggesting an amplifier with a much higher price tag.

This is the main characteristic of the Sinfonia sound which blurs the distinction between budget and expensive hi-fi: the sheer size of the sonic picture. This amp makes BIG sounds, a stage that's wide and deep as well as tall. And this is a boon for the medium-sized speakers likely to be used with such affordable hardware. As a rule medium-sized speakers betray their dimensions by not filling the space in front of the listener. The SInfonia allows small speakers to perform at their optimum level, disappearing as good speakers should and giving a far greater impression of a seamless, room-filling performance rather than a miniature musical event.

My experience of recent Musical Fidelity designs piqued my curiosity further, but all I could discover was that the SInfonias bear only a philosophical relationship with the Typhoon series. The Sinfonias take the performance a stage further with their dual-mono topology and superior construction, luxuries made possible because the Sinfonias sell for more than the Typhoon package. What you hear, then, is a move upward from the already satisfying performance of the Typhoon to something even more coherent, more authoritative and more dynamic.

Regardless of the material auditioned through the system, the Sinfonia imparted a sense of solidity which made the sonic images seem that much more real...which is all that a good hi-fi is supposed to do. The individual performers had more body, more clearly defined shapes and more precisely drawn positioning. This remained consistent whether listening to well-recorded solo performances, small groups or large orchestras, and it suggests that the SInfonia pre-amp is able to deal with delicate, low level signals without blurring any of the subtle clues which form a 3D sonic picture.

The only area which needs special care is the phono section, which -- on moving-coil -- favours m-cs of medium or high output. Low-output designs may require that you operate the volume control past its optimum 10 o'clock-to-2 o'clock arc, and you can just about hear the pre-amp working that much harder. The line inputs were all healthy enough to allow the Sinfonia amp to drive LS3/5As, the smaller TDL transmission lines and even Celestion SL 700 SEs in that preferred arc.

Another characteristic of the Sinfonia which makes it an ideal match for contemporary dynamic speaker designs is a silky smoothness which keeps dome tweeters from spitting, especially metal dome types. This lack of texture was constant through the frequency spectrum, graininess appearing only when reaching the amplifier's limits.

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